Thursday, April 27, 2006

More from the science front

Couple thoughts occasioned by the morning's fishwrap* and its handling of the World of Empiricism:

One, cheering in the press box:

Vitamin study disappointing
C, E supplements don't give protection in pregnancy, experts say
A disappointing new study found that vitamin C and E supplements given to healthy pregnant women do not reduce their risk of developing preeclampsia, a complication that can be lethal to both expectant mother and child.

Unless you're in the vitamin supplement business and have just bought up a boatload of C and E supplements, it's hard to see why this study is "disappointing." (Yes, the judgment is the AP writer's fault, but the desk amplified it instead of deleting it.) That really isn't what the whole research thing is about. What happens, or what's supposed to happen, is that somebody develops a hypothesis, figures out a way to test it and reports the results. So we'd have a null hypothesis:

C and E supplements don't affect the risk of preeclampsia

and a unidirectional research hypothesis:

C and E supplements reduce the risk of preeclampsia

So women in their first pregnancies were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, and the study found no significant differences on preeclampsia or several other risks. Is that disappointing? Yes and no. We know (or we have a pretty good idea; research can produce false negatives as well as false positives) that the treatment doesn't seem to affect this group positively. That might mean eliminating an unnecessary treatment with potential downsides of its own. We know something we didn't know before. And studies are continuing on other groups. Recommendation: Leave out the opinion and let the data speak for themselves.

Two, stories that aren't stories:
Oxford database hits 1 billion words
Research tool scours Internet, print sources for language trends
LONDON - A massive language research database responsible for bringing words such as "podcast" and "celebutante" to the pages of the Oxford dictionaries has officially hit a total of 1 billion words, researchers said Wednesday.

In its favor, you can say this isn't completely fabricated -- like, say, the algorithm that tells us English is going to hork up its millionth word ANY DAY NOW.** But it's right next door to meaningless. For one thing, a billion is a big number, but it's an easy one to reach if you pick the right units. If you drove from HEADSUP-L Manor to the in-laws', you'd hit the billion-millimeter mark somewhere southeast of Lansing.

At least that's a real measurement, though. A billion mm is twice as much of the distance to the northern marches of Detroit as half a billion mm. But as the story clearly notes, this milestone isn't the result of adding stuff like "celebutante" to the dictionary. It doesn't measure words in play. It measures all the words in sentences and examples that define the words in play. If all the usage examples for "inner child" and "gabfest" were a word or two shorter, we'd still be stuck God knows how many tens of millions short of this milestone.

Which brings us to the last complaint: Faux language magic. The only excuse for passages like

As hybrid words such as "geek-chic," "inner-child" or "gabfest" increase in usage, Pearsall said part of the research project's goal is to identify words that have lasting power.

is to let the reporter trot out some silly words. There's no reason to believe that "hybrid words" are on the upswing in usage; hell, "gabfest" has been around since the late 19th century, and even "inner child" is now an inner 43-year-old.*** Nor is there any logical link between the reporter's suppositions about compounds and the research project's goals.

Conclusion: This ain't a story. Don't waste space on it.

I still don't know quite what to make of the bird grammar story. I'd really like to like it, and I've read it half a dozen times in an effort to do so, and somebody still seems to have not quite figured out where the thing is supposed to be going. One of the pros has taken it apart pretty skilfully, and I'm delighted to refer you to him.

* I am seriously going to hate it when "fishwrap" goes the way of "broken record," by the way.
** H1: Journalists set the BS barrier significantly lower when the person offering the bogus story has a degree from Harvard. Design a study to test this hypothesis and explain the methods you would use to analyze the results.
*** With enough "lasting power" for the OED. Reporters who refuse to use the dictionary should be cudgeled with it. If you're getting to the dictionary online, use your keyboard.


Anonymous Strayhorn said...

Concerning H1 -

It's pretty easy to spot when the Ivy-leaguers have taken over any given project: when the process becomes more important than the product, you can be pretty sure someone from Harverd or Yail is in charge.

8:39 AM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger aparker54 said...

Interesting generalization, strayhorn.

8:49 AM, April 29, 2006  

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